May 21, 2019

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Van Gogh film troubled like artist was

Loving Vincent esthetically beautiful, but story flounders

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2017 (557 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are hundreds of films — and songs and plays and novels and even video games — about Vincent van Gogh, the 19th-century Dutch painter whose intensely expressive work, difficult life and early death fuelled a mystique that has crossed over from the art world to the realm of pop culture.

The attention-getting concept behind Loving Vincent — in which a team of more than 125 artists have created an animated story out of 65,000 oil paintings referencing more than 120 of van Gogh’s own — would have worked beautifully in a short film.

Unfortunately, this oddly literal translation of van Gogh’s vision ends up getting bogged down in a full-length dramatic feature. Loving Vincent is made up of visually lush, gorgeously coloured, constantly moving surfaces, but the narrative underneath remains awkward and static.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2017 (557 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are hundreds of films — and songs and plays and novels and even video games — about Vincent van Gogh, the 19th-century Dutch painter whose intensely expressive work, difficult life and early death fuelled a mystique that has crossed over from the art world to the realm of pop culture.

The attention-getting concept behind Loving Vincent — in which a team of more than 125 artists have created an animated story out of 65,000 oil paintings referencing more than 120 of van Gogh’s own — would have worked beautifully in a short film.

Unfortunately, this oddly literal translation of van Gogh’s vision ends up getting bogged down in a full-length dramatic feature. Loving Vincent is made up of visually lush, gorgeously coloured, constantly moving surfaces, but the narrative underneath remains awkward and static.

Good Deed Entertainment</p><p>Painter Vincent van Gogh (voiced by Robert Gulaczyk) in Loving Vincent, an animated film in which each frame is a painting created in the style of the artist.</p>

Good Deed Entertainment

Painter Vincent van Gogh (voiced by Robert Gulaczyk) in Loving Vincent, an animated film in which each frame is a painting created in the style of the artist.

Writer-director duo Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman set their drama one year after van Gogh’s death at age 37. Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), the kindly postmaster who befriended van Gogh in Arles, France, finds an undelivered letter from Vincent to his brother Theo and sets his son Armand (Douglas Booth) on a journey to deliver it. After arriving in Paris to discover that Theo has followed his brother to the grave, Armand heads to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent spent his last days.

The film becomes a kind of mystery story, in which Armand investigates conflicting accounts of van Gogh’s state of mind before his death and whether the final fatal gunshot was suicide, accident or murder.

Flashback memories are rendered in a simple, flat, black-and-white mode, which means only brief monochrome glimpses of van Gogh himself (Robert Gulaczyk), usually through someone’s else’s recollections.

"You want to know so much about his death, but what do you know about his life?" a friend of van Gogh’s asks Armand. This is a question that should have been considered more closely by the filmmakers. Focusing mostly on his death, they have failed to give much of a sense of van Gogh as a living man and artist.

A still from “Loving Vincent.” (Breakthru Films and Good Deed Entertainment)

A still from “Loving Vincent.” (Breakthru Films and Good Deed Entertainment)

Against the backdrops of van Gogh’s paintings, we have primarily British actors, often cast for their resemblance to van Gogh’s portraits of their real-life characters. Their performances have been rotoscoped and then overlaid with paint. The final effect retains the actors’ actual eyes and mouths, a technique that occasionally veers over into the uncanny.

The film is packed with art history Easter eggs, so an observant van Gogh fan can say, oh, there’s the painting of Père Tanguy, and there’s Marguerite Gachet at her piano, and the church at Auvers-sur-Oise, and van Gogh’s room at Arles, and that disreputable night café. And, admittedly, this is kind of fun at first, but eventually it feels gimmicky.

The film’s landscapes take van Gogh’s already dynamic brushwork and make those swirling skies, yearning cypress trees and vibrating lights actually move.

Again, this is initially neat, but ultimately exhausting. With van Gogh’s actual paintings, we can enter into these visual worlds and explore them at our own pace. Here, they come at us with unremitting force.

It’s beautiful, but in the end, Welchman and Kobiela’s seven-year passion project suggests an ardent but slightly misguided devotion. The labour involved in those sun-drenched visuals is prodigious, but some of that energy should have gone into script rewrites.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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